2007-07-03 / News

Island pilot project results in cash to farmers

By Dotti Farrington

Three Jamestown farmers have sold this season's rights to harvest hay in exchange for a new cash crop: bobolinks.

The farmers were paid to let about 34 acres of their fields grow without cutting in May and June so the bobolinks can breed and nest.

Bobolinks? Yes. They form the centerpiece of a University of Rhode Island research project that its leader says has evolved into a worldwide first for marketing nature.

Professor Stephen Swallow, professor and researcher at the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at URI's College of the Environment and Life Sciences, spoke Saturday about the marketing of nesting fields for bobolinks. Farmers were paid to not harvest their hay. Their new bobolink crop is the outcome of URI's survey last fall and marketing earlier this year.

URI conducted the mass mailing survey first and then a marketing campaign to the approximately 2,800 year-round households of Jamestown. About 30 percent, roughly 900 residents responded to the survey. About 13 percent, or nearly 400 responded to the marketing mailing, but only a little more than half bought into the bird crop, paying $10 to $130 for shares in the project.

Swallow called the marketing technique a form of auction, and specified it was not a drive for donations. Offers were solicited as bids to buy shares for nesting options for bobolinks, whose numbers have been dwindling because of the decreasing numbers and sizes of hayfields.

Bobolinks nest in undisturbed hayfields every spring. Climate changes have caused farmers to harvest hay earlier over the years, cutting into the bobolinks' nesting patterns and leading to a decline in the birds. The bobolinks are important for control of pests and weeds.

Jamestowners' offers, totaling $9,800, were distributed by the researchers among six local farmers who registered for the experiment. In all, the island has 10 farms covering some 700 acres, which represents 12 percent of Jamestown's total area. Buyers did not choose which farm got their money.

Global potential

The mailings and evaluations were part of one project of a multiphased, $1.2 million grant, with global implications, to develop new ways to help farmers make environmentally sensitive decisions. One of the approaches being researched and tested is changing usual farming routines, such as not harvesting hay temporarily. The goal for any approach is to find market sources for costs of farming decisions, such as getting funds to buy cattle feed to substitute for the uncut hay in exchange for better environmental and esthetic impacts.

Swallow said the approach developed for the URI project depended on some findings of other studies, but it represents the first time that a new approach was tried in the real marketplace, which happened to be Jamestown farms. The professor sees potential for the approach to be adopted and adapted worldwide to development environmentally friendly markets for a variety of farm products.

URI is conducting the project with EcoAsset Marketing of Providence with a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, in cooperation with the Jamestown Farm Viability Committee and Conanicut Island Land Trust.

Names of participating farmers and some specifics of the arrangements, dubbed the Nature Services Exchange, are being withheld at this time, according to Swallow, to enable the researchers to complete evaluations in controlled environments. He said a full report, from the economic and marketing perspectives, will be available soon. He is due to prepare such a report for a conference this summer.

Research data

Swallow's chief aide at URI, Assistant Professor Emi Uchida, explained last week that the farmwildlife contracts were randomly tied to different types of pricing or auction methods. 'We spent over a year developing a novel approach that we hope will be successful in bringing together many residents in support of wildlife, pastoral views, and farms in the community, where more familiar approaches have failed," the researcher reported. "A common feature to all auction methods was that everyone was assured that we will return unneeded funds, which is different from a donation," she added. Previous studies reported these approaches are more likely to bring more people to participate with their maximum offer of support, Uchida pointed out.

She reported that a research team biologist conducted field surveys at local farms to evaluate impacts of the farm-wildlife contracts. She said auction participants also shared a day at a local farm to hear preliminary reports and to view bobolink use of uncut fields.

"This is the first time- in the world, really- that anyone has attempted this type of an exchange for nature services," Uchida emphasized. "Although the research group still needs to analyze the data collected through this exchange, we will be able to learn how people make decisions under alternative auction methods. These findings in turn will be helpful in developing other markets for ecosystem services," the professor explained.

Next year

Swallow and Uchida joined in saying, "We value the effort, time and interest of all the residents who participated in this year's market and look forward to their participation in the future."

They described the purpose of the Jamestown project as to as a pilot for establishing communitybased markets for wildlife protection, and they expect it could serve as a model for securing protection for other forms of wildlife, for protecting water quality and addressing other ecological issues.

Officials at EAM, URI's colleagues in the project, are hoping the research will help create a system for evaluating the economic value of natural resources. They said the world's essential ecosystems, climate, and biodiversity are being destroyed in large part because economic markets have no way of assessing the financial value of nature and its resources.

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